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Black Lawmakers Downplay Obama Grievances -- After Taking Them to the Press

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Rep. Barbara Lee, center, accompanied by fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, speaks to reporters outside the White House March 11. (AP Photo)

Black congressional leaders emerged from an afternoon pow-wow at the White House with nothing but nice things to say about President Obama, even though behind the scenes the lawmakers and their aides seemed to be spoiling for a fight. 

"The president has always had our ear," the Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told reporters after the meeting Thursday. "We've been working with the president since before he was the president." 

Asked about a possible rift between the 43-member caucus and the White House, Lee responded: "I don't know where you're hearing grumblings from." 

But the "grumblings" have been rumbling ever since Obama entered the White House. Black lawmakers have long expressed concern that Obama is not paying attention to them and not doing enough to address minority unemployment. 

Members of the caucus aired their grievances most recently in a Politico.com story published Thursday morning, in which powerful Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said White House officials are "not listening" to the caucus. 

Another lawmaker suggested Obama was obsessing over his image. 

"While I respect President Obama, delivering victories for his political future should be the least of our worries on Capitol Hill," Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., was quoted as saying. 

Another aide grumbled that White House adviser Valerie Jarrett had canceled lunch with caucus members eight times. 

The new wave of complaints comes after Conyers told the Hill newspaper last year that Obama's agenda was veering away from that of the black community. He said Obama "screwed up" on health care reform and on the closure of Guantanamo Bay, and said he disagreed with him on his Afghanistan policy. He said Obama even called him to ask why he was "demeaning" him. 

The split over the Afghanistan troop build-up persists. A number of black caucus members, including Lee, voted Wednesday for a resolution calling for Obama to remove U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of the year. 

But Lee said after the meeting Thursday that Obama and the black caucus share plenty of common ground, particularly when it comes to the economy. She listed among the initiatives they had in common a push to promote summer youth jobs and support woman- and minority-owned businesses. 

"He was very generous with his time," she said.